Rabada was duly named Player of the Match for his seven wickets, including 5 for 52 in England’s first innings, but Nortje was the game-breaker on day three, as he steamed in with speeds touching 95mph to rout England’s middle order with three for none in ten balls in the mid-afternoon, including England’s star batter of the summer, Jonny Bairstow, for the second time in the match.
“I definitely didn’t think that waking up this morning,” Elgar said during the post-match presentations, when asked if he had envisaged such a swift denouement, given his side had come into the day with an overnight lead of 124 and three first-innings wickets remaining. “I was thinking the guys have got to bat long and hard and try and extend that lead, and when it’s our turn to come and bowl, we’ve got to put the ball in the right area thinking it might flatten out.
“But Nortje’s spell was something that just broke the back,” he added. “He ran in with a lot of intent and a lot of anger, and it was great to watch from where I was fielding, I’m sure it wasn’t nice to face.”
“My [captaincy] decisions come with a lot of positivity into the camp,” he said. “We want the guys to go out and express themselves. Even though we play in a South African way, it’s our way, it’s a unique way, and slowly but surely we’re building on that. For me, the toss is just a decision that one guy has to make and the rest have to follow, and the guys are doing a great job with that. I’m very grateful with the young squad that I have.”
“I’ve got a very good think-tank behind the scenes,” he added. “We’ve got good coaches with a lot of advice, and I process the advice as well. Sometimes you just go with gut and a bit of luck. Things worked out today, with Kesh [Maharaj] obviously getting a few wickets and then bringing on Anrich who bowls with the speed of light when he gets it right. But I never settle for what I have, I’m always trying to get better with my job.”
“Obviously, we’re disappointed to lose. It’d be silly for me to say anything different,” Stokes said. “But if we dive into this too much, about one result in a three-match series, then we’re not looking forward to what’s coming ahead. Now we’ve got two more games to bounce back from this. And then hopefully, take the series 2-1.”
The crushing manner of the defeat, Stokes added, would not deflect the team from continuing in their recent proactive manner.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “I look at captains before me, captains after me. They’re always going to get criticised at certain times about the way that they want to play. That’s just part and parcel with life, I guess.
“We know that, when we perform to the capabilities that we’re capable of, then we can go out and put some incredible performances like everybody’s been able to see in the four games before this. This isn’t a wake-up call or anything like that. It’s just, unfortunately, we were unable to execute in the way that we wanted to play this week against South Africa.”
Stokes did, however, hint that the ECB’s white-ball focus had been a factor in his team losing some momentum from the highs they had achieved against New Zealand and India six weeks earlier. Unlike South Africa, England’s players did not have the benefit of a red-ball warm-up match to reacquaint themselves with the longer game’s rhythms, and he suggested that would be an issue worth considering for the future.
“I don’t want to use that situation as an excuse whatsoever. Maybe there could be an opportunity to put a first-class game in there for the lads to go off and just get out there in the field, whether it be a bowler or a batter, but I think if I’m looking at that and using that as an excuse, it’s not really what I want to be saying.”
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket